The Eternal Importance of Religious Freedom

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The Eternal Importance of Religious Freedom

Latter-day Saints can play a critical role in protecting this “first freedom.”


Leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have long counseled that to protect freedom of religion, concerned citizens must be vigilant, understand the importance of religious freedom, and come to its defense. Church leaders recently emphasized that this is true even during a pandemic.

“We can no more disregard the valid claims of religious freedom in a time of crisis than we can disregard the valid claims of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, or freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures,” said Elder David A. Bednar of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles during a conference on religious freedom in June 2020. He added, “A health crisis should not become an excuse for a religious freedom crisis.”

Recent restrictions—and “attacks on the freedoms of religion, speech, and assembly”—show just how fragile those freedoms can be, warned Elder Bednar.

“Religious freedom can quickly be swept aside in the name of protecting other societal interests. Despite COVID-19 risks, North American jurisdictions declared as essential numerous services related to alcohol, animals, marijuana, and other concerns. But often religious organizations and their services were simply deemed nonessential, even when their activities could be conducted safely. In the name of protecting physical health and security or advancing other social values, government often acted without regard to the importance of protecting spiritual health and security. It often seemed to forget that securing religious freedom is as vital as physical health.”1

The Challenge of Secularism

Times of crisis require a balance between religious liberty and societal interests,2 but even before COVID-19, Church leaders warned that religious liberty and faith face growing threats.

“Our era … has created a climate for popularizing the diminution or minimizing of religious faith in a way that is unprecedented in Western culture, or certainly in American culture,” said Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. He said faith, family, and religious freedom “are at risk as we progress into the 21st century.”3

He has also stated: “Turning a blind eye to religious discrimination can de facto breed an environment in which hostile groups are emboldened in other ways, leading to other kinds of crime, violent behavior, and social disintegration.”4

Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles added: “As the experience of apostles and prophets, ancient and modern, invariably demonstrates, religion is often countercultural and thus unpopular. Likewise, religious freedom, while generally supported in principle, is often vigorously opposed in practice.”5

Church leaders have attributed growing attacks on religion to the growing influence of secularism (indifference to or rejection of religion) and moral relativism (the view that there is no absolute right or wrong). Safeguarding religious liberty and public morality against those influences requires vigilance.6

President Dallin H. Oaks, First Counselor in the First Presidency, said:

“The weakening guarantees of the free exercise of religion are not attributable to causes that are legal but to changes in culture. The diminished value being ascribed to religious freedom stems from the ascendency of moral relativism. …

“The ascendancy of moral relativism weakens religious freedom because it encourages the proliferation of rights that claim ascendancy over the constitutionally guaranteed free exercise of religion.”7

Elder Christofferson concurs: “Values we once shared with the great majority of our fellow citizens are now often considered outdated, naive, and sometimes even bigoted. Because a society’s deepest values drive law and public policy, and because those values in many Western nations are now almost entirely secular, government is increasingly enforcing secular values at the expense of religious ones. And society itself—even without the force of government—can ostracize, stigmatize, and discriminate against religious believers in overt and subtle ways, leaving people of faith marginalized and sometimes even despised.”8

“Our challenge,” said Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, “is to help people without religious faith understand that the protection of moral principles grounded in religion is a great benefit to society and that religious devotion is critical to public virtue.”9

The Most Important Freedom

“Freedom of religion and freedom of speech are both the heart and the foundation of representative democracy,” Elder Cook taught. “Freedom to believe in private and to exercise belief and speech in the public square are essential to protecting inalienable rights.”10

Elder Christofferson has called religious participation in public life “one of the golden threads in our national tapestry,”11 contributing enormously to societal well-being:

“Religious conscience encourages the virtues and habits of good citizenship that are necessary for a free society—honesty, duty, moral self-discipline, sacrifice for family and country, compassion and service toward others, civic engagement. Religion inspires individuals to develop praiseworthy character traits, and such people become more engaged and responsible citizens and more effective contributors to the welfare of their own communities and the nation. …

“… Religion does the hard work of inculcating the habits and mores necessary for free and democratic societies to exist.”12

Religious freedom, said Elder Bednar, is paramount to other fundamental rights: “No freedom is more important than religious freedom. The freedom of religion properly has been called our first freedom. It is first not only because of its placement as the first right in the First Amendment [in the United States Constitution], but also because of the paramount importance of respecting the moral agency of each person.”13

Without “robust religious freedom,” moral agency is in jeopardy, said Elder Ronald A. Rasband of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. “Satan sought to destroy religious freedom in the premortal life, and he is still at it. We, as members of the Church, must recognize that the erosion of religious freedom will significantly impact our opportunities to grow in strength and gospel knowledge, to be blessed by sacred ordinances, and to rely on the Lord to direct His Church.”14

Religion and Self-Governance

“One of the reasons the attack on moral and religious principles has been so successful is the reluctance of people of faith to express their views,” said Elder Cook. “Extraordinary effort will be required to protect religious liberty. Our doctrine confirms what the U.S. founding fathers and political philosophers have advocated [see Doctrine and Covenants 134:2].”15

What they have advocated, President Oaks taught, is the central role religion plays in developing self-governance: “Our society is not held together primarily by law and its enforcement, but most importantly by those who voluntarily obey the unenforceable because of their internalized norms of righteous or correct behavior. Religious belief in right and wrong is a vital influence to produce such voluntary compliance by a large number of our citizens.” George Washington, he added, “spoke of this reality in his farewell address: ‘Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. … Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.’”16

Stand Up for Freedom of Religion

Elder Christofferson said Latter-day Saints and other concerned people can play a critical role in protecting religious freedom as they:

  • Become informed. “Study the principles of the American founding and teach them in your families. Teach your families to cherish America’s heritage of freedom. Teach them the importance of religion to our nation and society.”

  • “Speak up. Churches and people of faith must not allow themselves to be intimidated and silenced. … Make the effort to stay informed about issues of public importance, and then speak out with courage and civility.”

  • “Get involved. … The crisis of religious freedom is as much a cultural crisis as a political or legal one. So get involved in the cultural and civic organizations around you so that you can influence them to respect religious freedom.”

  • “‘Be … an example of the believers’ [1 Timothy 4:12]. … Let us show … our willingness to love and serve others, to build strong families, to live honorable lives, and to be good citizens.”17